Valtteri Bottas took victory in the Japanese Grand Prix as Mercedes secured the constructors’ championship and is guaranteed a drivers’ title.
The Finn started from third on the grid after a good lap in qualifying on Sunday morning, and took advantage of an error from polesitter Sebastian Vettel to lead into Turn 1. Vettel moved slightly before the lights went out and stopped in his grid slot before reacting again, and Bottas was able to quickly pass the Ferrari and enjoy a comfortable advantage into the first corner.
From there Bottas was never really under threat, as Vettel had to spend most of the race focusing on Lewis Hamilton, who was soon in third place due to a second Ferrari driver’s error at the start. Charles Leclerc went side-by-side with Max Verstappen through Turn 1 but then understeered into the side of the Red Bull at Turn 2, spinning Verstappen and damaging both cars.
Although Leclerc continued and held off Hamilton for the first three laps — despite losing a chunk of his front wing on the run to 130R that left debris on the track and damaged Hamilton’s mirror — the Monegasque was forced to pit early and eventually three-stopped his way to sixth place. The collision with Verstappen — who was forced to retire early on due to the damage sustained — remained under investigation after the race, with Leclerc ultimately being given a pair of penalties that dropped him to seventh in the final order.
Once Leclerc had made his first stop, Hamilton cruised up to the back of Vettel in a sign of how the Mercedes was managing its tires better following the lack of running on Saturday. Vettel pit first of the front-runners and stayed on the soft compound to signal a two-stop strategy, and Bottas followed him in one lap later for mediums but was also told he was two-stopping.
Hamilton was originally put on a one-stop but only managed to extend his opening stint by four laps over Bottas, pitting on Lap 21 and having to catch Vettel again. The championship leader was clearly unhappy at the strategy after fitting mediums, complaining about the gaps to Bottas and Vettel ahead.
While the top three settled into their second stints, there was plenty of action further back. The two McLarens had jumped Alexander Albon at the start but Albon barged his way past Norris, causing damage to the McLaren which was forced to pit with an overheating brake duct. The incident was noted but not investigated.
Albon rose to finish fourth ahead of the very impressive Carlos Sainz, who secured his third top-five finish of the season. Sainz had the pace to hold off Leclerc’s charge, as the Ferrari made three stops and had to climb through the field on multiple occasions.
Leclerc pulled brave but clean moves into both Turn 1 and Spoon, and climbed to sixth at the flag after a late stop to fit softs that ultimately did not allow him to take the fastest lap off Hamilton.
Daniel Ricciardo was one of the drivers Leclerc passed on track but he himself did plenty of overtaking, dispatching Pierre Gasly into Turn 1 for seventh place in an excellent recovery from 16th on the grid.
It looked like being an even better day for Renault as Gasly and Sergio Perez tangled starting the final lap, leaving Perez in the barrier at Turn 2 and Nico Hulkenberg in ninth place.
However, the checkered flag panel had been shown in error to drivers starting their final lap and as a result of that glitch the race was called at the end of Lap 52, when Perez was ninth behind Gasly and Hulkenberg 10th. The incident was investigated but no penalties were assessed.
That checkered flag error also appeared to have cost Lance Stroll a point as he finished 11th, before the post-race penalty for Leclerc.
The mistake could have cost viewers a grandstand finish as Hamilton had hunted down Vettel and was all over the back of the Ferrari for the final five laps, but ultimately could not find a way past in traffic as he used the best of his soft tire performance. The result was still enough to secure Mercedes a sixth straight constructors’ championship, however, and with Bottas winning it means only Bottas or Hamilton can become drivers’ champion. Mercedes is the first team in F1 history to win six consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles.